Alecia D. McKenzie I IPS
AMSTERDAM, Sep 22 (IPS) - Along with "canal" and "dyke", young people visiting this city will learn some other interesting words in a very short time - words such as "cannabis", "bong", and "marijuana". The words are hard to avoid, especially in the tourist area that boasts a museum devoted to "hash".
But mere words are the least of a parent's worry here.
Residents are increasingly concerned that school-age children are being harmed by the long-standing policy of tolerance towards limited use of soft drugs. Children as young as 12 are "feeling pressured to try marijuana," as one parent put it. In response, government officials at both the municipal and national level are now taking steps to revise the country's drug strategy.
In June, the port city of Rotterdam ordered the closure of coffee shops within 250 metres of high schools and some primary schools. Coffee shops are licensed to sell cannabis, besides drinks and snacks. The mayor's office cited a "worrying rise" in the use of soft drugs by youths in vulnerable situations. The measure affected 16 of the city's 62 coffee shops.
"We talked with the schools and parents and they welcomed the closure of the coffee shops," says Richard Anderiesse, spokesman for Rotterdam's Social Safety Department. "The main goal is that we don't want youngsters under 18 years old to use soft drugs in the vicinity of schools, so we make it harder for them to buy the drugs," he told IPS.
Amsterdam is also taking the same strategy and, at the state level, lawmakers are debating whether to revise the distinction between hard and soft drugs and whether to appoint a drug czar to oversee policy. New rules are expected to be outlined this autumn, and they will most likely include a national policy to close coffee shops located near schools, Anderiesse said.
The Trimbos Institute - the Netherlands Institute of Mental Health and Addiction - says cannabis use among school-goers has remained stable since 2003, but that 41 percent of boys and 30 percent of girls in the Netherlands had tried the drug by the age of 16.
A 2007 survey by the European school project on alcohol and other drugs (ESPAD) suggested that 28 percent of children aged 15 and 16 in the Netherlands were regular cannabis users, similar to the figure in 2003. The Czech Republic had the highest prevalence with 45 percent, while Romania had the lowest, at 4 percent.
Among students under 14 years, 6 percent reported using cannabis in 2007, compared with 9 percent for the United Kingdom, according to the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA), a European Union agency.
About 71 million European adults, or 22 percent of the population aged 15- 64, report "lifetime" use of cannabis, the agency says.
The Dutch approach, developed in the 1970s, has been so far to "differentiate between the drug trafficker, who is viewed as a criminal, and the drug user, who is seen more as a sick person in need of treatment," says the EMCDDA. The main feature of the country's prevention policy is a "strong focus on health promotion in general."
The Netherlands does not prosecute the possession of cannabis for personal use of up to five grams, or five cannabis plants. But while the drug can be bought legally at coffee shops, the paradox is that the coffee shops have to obtain the drug illegally since trafficking is a crime under Dutch law.
The existence of coffee shops has given rise to so-called drug tourism, with young people from other countries descending on this picturesque city and making a beeline, for instance, to The Bulldog, one of the oldest coffee shops here. Other municipalities, especially those near the borders with Germany and Belgium, have shut down coffee shops to discourage this form of tourism, but Amsterdam still attracts hordes of young backpackers who come as much for the cannabis as for the canals.
Some observers have warned that the coffee shops hurt rather than benefit communities, while others say that despite its drawbacks the Dutch policy has been among the most efficient strategies globally in combating drug use.
"We try to avoid simple comparisons, but the Dutch approach has been broadly vindicated by results over the past years," says Mike Trace, chairman of the International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), a global network promoting open debate on drug policy.
"The Netherlands has a very good system of health care for drug users, and this has been a more important aspect of their drug policy than the coffee shop issue," Trace told IPS. "They've invested in a much more robust way than most countries in initiatives to reduce their drug problem."
Trace said the IDPC acknowledges the need to constantly review policy if the "intention is to protect the younger population from the more dangerous substances." But the network remains critical of "any system or approach that seeks to reduce the scale of drug use by widespread arrests and to promote deterrence by punishment.
"It's not a successful policy," Trace said. "We're very clear that policies based on deterrence and harsh punishment are usually counter-productive."
By law, coffee shops in the Netherlands are not allowed to sell cannabis or drug-smoking paraphernalia to minors, meaning those under 18 years of age.
"The police are very strict when the coffee shops sell to minors, and if they're found out they will be closed because it's forbidden," Anderiesse told IPS.
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